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Japan says goodbye to Tama, the cat stationmaster

The most beloved train station employee in Japan, Tama the cat, has died at age 16. Co-workers and her many fans gathered at the Kishi station where she served to attend her funeral.

Tama, the cat stationmaster whose fame managed to turn around a struggling local train line in Kishi, Japan, was laid to rest on Sunday in a Shinto ceremony which elevated her to the status of goddess.

The calico feline was credited with bringing in so much revenue from tourists and merchandise that she single-handedly saved the failing Kishigawa Line of the Wakayama Electric Railway, which lost its last human employee in 2006.

Tama was named stationmaster in 2007, and could always be found in her custom-made stationmaster's hat, waiting at the ticket gate to welcome passengers. She was such a hit with visitors, estimates indicate that she pumped at least 1.1 billion yen ($9 million) into the local economy in just her first year on the job.

She died on June 22 of heart failure at the age of 16.

"Tama won a great popularity at home and abroad as a super star of tourism. At the news of her loss, I express my deep sorrow and great gratitude," said Wakayama Governor Yoshinobu Nisaka.

The president of Wakayama Electric Railway, Mitsunobu Kojima, gave a eulogy at Sunday's funeral, held at the station where she served and attended by a crowd of co-workers and fans. He called Tama "a savior, a goddess" and added that "it was truly my honor to work with her."

The Shinto religion has a variety of gods, many of whom are animals. Tama was made a goddess at her funeral, and will be ceremonially enshrined next month.

Her successor is fellow calico cat Nitama, who until now has been an apprentice stationmaster.

es/rc (AP, AFP)